By Su Niye, Wordforpeace.com
Recently, I had the good fortune of attending an interfaith dialogue get-together. There was a wonderful mix of people present in the gatheringyoung, middle-aged and old (including an 8 year-old boy!); Buddhists and Muslims, Hindus and Christians, Jains and some who did not identify with any particular religion; college students and social activists, monks and nuns.
The main refrain of many of the speakers was that all religions share the same basic valueslove, compassion, peace, acceptance of others, care for the environment, and so on. Hence, they suggested, religion itself was not the cause for conflict. They seemed eager to absolve religion of any blame for the hatred and violence that has often been sanctioned in its name. One participantperhaps speaking for manysaid that all religions basically teach the same basic things, and that they are various paths that lead to the same goal. The implication, then, was that religions and their adherents have no reason at all to fight with each other.
My initial reaction to all of this talk was: Old hat! Grandmothers tales! Ive heard this before! Which world are these people living in?
Didnt they know about the huge amount of horrific violence that has been perpetrated down the centuries in the name of religion?
Werent they aware of terrorists fired by religious zeal, who have today become a global menace? Of wars and inter-communal conflicts that still rage today between people of different faiths?
Hadnt they any clue about how, through much of human history, all sorts of degrading superstitions, priestly oppression, slavery, and the subjugation of women, the poor and people of other faiths have been given religious sanction?
Didnt they know that even today, the way many (though by no means all) religionists understand their religions promotes intolerance, conflict and supremacismthe belief, for instance, that only those who follow their particular religion are favoured by God and will enter Paradise and that the rest of humanity will be consigned to eternal Hell?
It was all such heavily syrupy talk, their claim about all religions teaching love and compassion and so on, I thought, all very politically correct, but wasnt their silence on the many ways in which many religions have been, and continue to be, interpreted to promote precisely the opposite of the values that they said they stood for really a bit too much?
Was it intellectually honest of them to turn a blind eye to the obvious fact that despite some values that they share, the various religions also have major differences (mostly in matters of dogma and ritual) that a great many of their adherents consider as of fundamental importance, and so can deeply divide them?
Typically, religionists see their religions dogmas and rituals as the core of their religions, believing theirs to be the only, or the best, or the most suitable and sensible ones. Since the various religions differ in matters of dogma and ritual, this difference serves as a basis for setting off one religious community from the others, which, in turn, can be used to foment supremacism and conflict with others, as has indeed happened through much of human history.
The urge to promote interfaith harmony was laudable, and I was all for it, but could we really ignore these painful aspects of how many believers understand religion? You cant cure a sore by ignoring it, can you? That would only make it worse! If we truly wanted to promote interfaith harmony, ought we not, I felt, also to look at the other side of how religion is often understood, so that we could think of ways we could appropriately respond?
I returned from the event not overly enthusiastic, to put it mildly, about the way I had spent the day. It was the same old tired clichés that I had heard before ad nauseum in the various interfaith meetings that I had attended over the years. All very trite and naïve, I thought. Nothing new learnt! A terrible waste of precious time!
But the next morning, after a good nights sleep, I felt differently! Yes, I thought, its true that the participants at the meeting had hardly referred to the immense negativity that continues to be generated in the name of religion. Its true they hadnt talked about the probably irreconcilable truth-claims, doctrines and ritual practices of different religions. Its true that they had, for the most part, focused only on the goody-goody aspects of religion, each eager to present the best possible image of their faith. Its also true that they were seeking to present an understanding of religion that was universally acceptable, based on universal values, such as love, compassion and care for the environment.
But far from this being silly wishful thinking, it struck me, this might actually be precisely the point of the greatest significance! Maybe what the participants were voicing was a collective hope of a great many people today, tired of the ways in which religion has been used for sinister ends, for the emergence of a truly universal spirituality or planetary consciousness that transcends the barriers of dogma and ritual, name and form, communal identities and sectarian labels, that have, for centuries, divided humankind in the name of religion. Who knows, this higher spirituality or consciousness beyond narrow religious boundaries that brings together human beings on the basis of the common values such as the participants had talked about, might be what humankind is moving forward into, in our collective journey of spiritual evolution!
Might it be, then, that what I had so cynically dismissed as pointless pious platitudes of the participants at the meeting was just whats awaiting us round the cornera truly global world underpinned by a truly global spiritual consciousness!